“He throws cake in people’s faces,” was the first response I got when I mentioned that I’d be interviewing Steve Aoki about his new album Neon Future I. It’s true, and the international superstar DJ would be the first to admit it. That being said, Aoki is a lot more than the music festival and mega-club phenomenon that we frequently see him as. Pictures of sweaty, often-times intoxicated fans raging to Aoki’s performances as he shoots champagne on them show the performer’s seemingly insatiable appetite for debauchery, but fail to depict that he is in fact a brand, and an intelligent, diligent, and precise musician.
We sat down with Aoki at New York’s Tribeca Grand to dive further into the life of a baked-goods throwing icon.
Your brand new album, Neon Future I, is already #1 on the Dance Album Chart and in the Top 10 overall for iTunes. Are you at a point in your career where you feel confident that what you put out will be well received?
I don’t want to ever feel confident I’ll do well, because any time that I feel confident about anything, some shit happens. It’s just like, the nature of how things work. It’s always like that. You’re like, “Oh, this is going to be awesome!” Your expectations are just so high.
So I acted like, let’s just think about the basics, like the fact that I’m grateful that this album is finished and out of my life now. When it finally came out two days ago, it was no longer mine. It’s now the world’s. I’m… I’m done. I can’t stop to make any changes. Which is actually why the album got pushed back. One song was holding it up. I thought it was all done and then we had to go back. You just never know. You think you’re done and then some shit happens.
I’m just so happy it’s number one, so I’m grateful for that. And then, you know, of course now since I know where it stands, now I can get behind the right wheels and push it into the right direction so that it’ll get into the general charts a bit higher.
So that’s one of your goals?
Yeah, but to also break out of the dance space. Because when you listen to the songs…it’s definitely a dance album, but it crosses so many boundaries of genres, and you can hear it. You might not necessarily be a dance fan but you will be able to enjoy the music.
There’s been such a heavy popularization of EDM in the past few years. A decade ago, this stuff wasn’t really on the radio. How have you seen your fan base change?
When I think of the mainstream base of kids…it’s always a younger audience. The younger audience at large, pound for pound, with them it’s always the most energy, the most enthusiasm, and because they’re the ones making the most noise, they’re the most noticeable. They’re the ones that are driving the attention. Without them, it’s like, I think the attention wouldn’t be so notorious. That’s why the festival culture is filled with people like, “Oh yeah what’s that noise over there now?” These dance festivals are a big business, and it’s all these kids that are making it fun. Making it about energy instead of making it about a social gathering to look cool. Youth culture at large is by far the biggest component of the success of dance music in America.
And they’re finding it out now. When I look at mainstream music, it’s also youth culture. But on the flip side of things, they’re the ones also finding out about my music through the alternative sources that aren’t TV and radio, that’s like strictly from YouTube and SoundCloud. They’re the ones who have time to go discover music, to share music. The first thing they probably talk about in conversations with their friends is what new artists they’re listening to. That’s the topic of conversation. Whereas like when you go to a bar and hang out with friends, it might not be that. It might be like how your day at work sucks, or how your coworkers were doing some fucked up shit to you.
Why did you decide to split the album into two records?
I wrote the whole, all of these songs, the general concepts and ideas, all at the same time. That’s how it differs from my previous album. With my previous album, whenever I was in the studio, I was writing music and the culmination of that was Wonderland. This is like, okay, I treated it like I was in a band. You give yourself three weeks studio time, you get the general ideas down, and then you start building on those ideas throughout the course of the year. There were two major studio sessions in the beginning of 2013, and from that, it gave me like, a massive amount of ideas to develop into what broke down into about 18, 20 songs, which the boiled down to 16 songs, maybe 17 total.
And no one downloads albums anymore. If you think about the biggest selling album in EDM or dance music, it’s really, really low compared to any other genre. You have Hip Hop, where the biggest selling albums in Hip Hop are like multi-platinum albums, which is fair. Same with country, same with rock, same with pop. But I think the biggest selling dance album was Daft Punk but that’s also commercial, and slightly not necessarily in the dance space. But when you go to like Aviici or David Guetta or Calvin Harris, those big albums, I mean I don’t know what they are, but if you look at those numbers you’d be surprised how low they are compared to the other genres.
I feel like people really just pick and choose specific tracks now instead of downloading albums.
They do that with pretty much everything now, but with EDM it’s even more so, because we’re also a culture driven by singles more than any other culture. Dance, you need to put out an album if you want to get into Dance and you want to progress. You need to put out a mixtape if you’re a hip hop artist. Every culture’s different. With DJs, you don’t need to put out an album ever, in your entire career, ever, and you can be a top 10 DJ. It’s just the nature of it. So for me it’s like, okay I can’t do sixteen in one album. There are going to be so many songs that are going to get glossed over and they’re all so meaningful to me, and I’m doing a video for every song, which I really think puts a certain value on each one.
At the end of the day, this way I can look back at this time of my life in 2014 and know that I put as much time into each song as possible, whether it’s a hit or not. Because my life is not about hits anyway. I mean my career has gotten to this point with very little, I mean few, few hits. I feel like I’m doing pretty fucking good at this point in my career, and finally I’m having my first ever American top 40 song now. It’s weird.
Why do you think you were able to get this far without any hits?
That’s basically because I’ve lived entirely in the independent space. I’ve had my label for 18 years. I spoke only to a community that cared about the music. But I try to speak authentically to the community as frequently as possible. One thing that I learned…you have to earn a community’s respect by producing elements of the community to represent it in a positive way. Whether it’s a Zine, or if you get in a band, or you’re putting on shows…the thing is you’re embracing the community, making something bigger, better, and self-sustaining. With Dim Mak, I did whatever I could to turn it from a really expensive hobby to a self-sustaining business that is based entirely within its community. I mean, there’s like those weird records that just blew the fuck up on the label, like Selfie, which we never expected. I mean that thing did a few million downloads around the world. Maybe a 100 million on YouTube. And that’s on Dim Mak! We’re independent, you know? Shit, I think it’s 200 million now. The video’s like…super ghetto! And 200 million views.
I read that you’ve been interviewing a lot of scientists lately. What’s that about?
Yeah, so I teamed up with Wired. They’re the perfect partner for this because, I mean, I’m really diving into the tech space and the science space. But now I’m expanding it to anyone that has had any sort of influence on my life. To hear their visions of what the future looks like, through their past experiences and successes. So it goes as broad as Daymond John, who’s a friend of mine, from Shark Tank, to Arianna Huffington. She wrote a book called Thrive and at that time she was promoting the book. So that’s when I interviewed her. I went to Oxford to interview Richard Dawkins, who wrote a book called The God Delusion, which was one of the most inspiring books to me. That whole topic of evolution, you know, Atheism, and all that stuff doesn’t get discussed, in my opinion, outside of that space. People don’t want touch it. It’s like a bad word.
I think it’s because there’s something about it that scares people.
It is scary to a lot of people. You need to be kind of opened up. I try to stay as neutral as I can, you know. I really try to stay neutral just for anyone that has different viewpoints, so they can listen to it and try to get as much information as they can from it.
Who else have you spoken to?
There’s also Aubrey de Grey who wrote a book called Ending Aging, where the whole goal of the book is to find a cure for aging. It’s a really interesting concept. Since everyone considers that we are all gonna die, like it’s inevitable. The idea is that it might not be inevitable. And it’s actually like, we can cure it like a disease.
It’s absolutely worth exploring. It’s not science fiction. These books discuss how much time and labor and research is being put into all this stuff. So I’m just trying to be a bridge, trying to break it down, get the main concepts, simplify it, and not necessarily dumb it down, because these concepts are actually pretty simple when you break it down. It’s actually interesting to people. That’s why I’m doing it. I think it’s cool. As much as I’m a fan of music, as much as my life is consumed by music, I’m as human as everyone else and I want to show that.
A friend of mine asked me to bring up the article in which you’re quoted saying the DJ thing has just been an act and that it’s not real. I looked it up and saw it was a satirical article, but my friend didn’t get that. Were you pissed off about that piece?
The sad part about it is that for the people that just discover me, that might be the first thing that pops up because it’s so tabloid-y and juicy that it’s one of those fast things that spreads. That’s the problem when it gets requoted from a satirical site. When it’s a satire, you can’t actual pull it down. You can’t say, “I didn’t say those things, you have to pull it down.” They can say it because it’s a satirical website. The problem is when people see it and they put it on their Facebook pages or they pull it and put it on like real websites. That’s where the problem is. I mean it’s funny. I was like holy shit, it’s really funny. It’s a lengthy article, and for anyone who doesn’t know it could be real. I don’t know. I get kind of upset about it but then I read other articles about other people that are honestly like 10 times worse, and I don’t really think anything worse about them. Like when you read something bad about Kanye West, I still fucking love Kanye West. He’s still such a badass, you know?
This album is packed with collaborations. Can you tell me about them?
The Fall Out Boy collab was really cool. For me, it’s an easy to work with someone in the Hip Hop world or the Pop world. Because the Hip Hop community and the Pop community already embraced the dance beat in their songs. You can hear it on the radio. But the rock world…I feel like there was a small backlash when me and Linkin Park did a song together. But I felt like, at large, people accepted it. And that’s what I want. I want to pave some new roads. Like when Avicii did his song “Wake Me Up” and he played it at Ultra, people were booing. People were not happy about that. There was a lot of talk about how bad it was. And then look what happened. It became one of the biggest songs of our culture. Not just Dance music, I mean, it was the most streamed song on Spotify or something.
Why do you think people’s initial reaction was so negative?
Anything that they’re not familiar with, it’s easy to hate. I think that’s with anything. You add a new element to something, there’s going to be hate. But the people that try to take those risks, I definitely stand up and applaud them for that. Even if I might not necessarily be a fan of the sound or the song, I’m a fan of the fact that they’re pushing for some sort of change. I love being able to be a part of that change too, doing this song with Fall Out Boy. I think it’s one of the most interesting collaborations and it works. So, you know, I think whenever you do something new, that hasn’t been done before, eventually it makes it over. And then it soars. It thrives. It opens a door for others and then you hear all kinds of shit coming out.
You’ve been working with Iggy Azalea for years now, and all of a sudden she just got huge. What was it like for you watching her just explode?
You always hope for your friends to just blow the fuck up. Especially when they’re as cool as Iggy. Like, we did so much shit together back then, she was in a Dim Mak campaign that she did for free. And then she starred in my “Mr. Taxi” video, which she did for free. She’s just so easy to work with. She’s also really smart, and really sharp. She knew what she had to do. I did a big LA show and I had Linkin Park, Travis Barker and Kid Cudi and she came up and performed “Beat Down.” She’s always just down.
I loved that video. I’d just watch it over and over, her whipping her hair.
Yeah exactly, that’s like her signature move. She’s so cool man. I’m so happy to see her blow up. I mean, I didn’t know. The first time I heard Fancy, I knew then like, wow, this has got that Iggy style so good. Just from that, it was just an exponential trajectory. It was awesome to see her blow up. But she filled a void. I mean Nicki Minaj wasn’t doing anything really big. There was no big female rapper in the game at that time. There’s really not that many popular female rappers. It’s strange. Like there’s a million guy rappers out there. When I think about it I think of just Nikki and Iggy.
How was your interview with Larry King?
That was really cool. Oh my god. I was talking to him as if he didn’t know what EDM stood for or what it meant, or what concerts were like or why people are obsessed with it, trying to explain the basics, the 101. I could tell he already got it. He was like, “Let’s just get to the deeper stuff.” And he was able to navigate in a way where I could see his brain work where it was like, I have to give this to my audience who doesn’t know anything about dance music. He’s very sharp. I mean he’s 81. He’s one of the best interviewers. The flow was solid, touching on, you know, personal stuff that I knew he was going to touch on, but also what people know of me right now, of being a DJ. That’s a check off the bucket list for sure. Never would I have ever have thought I’d be interviewed by Larry King! That’s like the interview of all interviews, I think. Is there anything more?
Oh, oh yeah. Oprah you have to cry or something.
Yeah, you have to have some sort of shtick.
If you don’t cry on an Oprah interview, like you almost have to force yourself. Like, “Hey, you like playing shows?” and then (fake sobs) “I just love music so much!” I think once you sit down with her, you just automatically start feeling some weird emotions. You just start crying on command.
Upcoming US Tour Dates:
10/2 – New York, NY – MLB Fan Cave
10/3 – Las Vegas, NV – Hakkasan
10/4 – Las Vegas, NV – Wet Republic
10/4 – Eugene, OR – Cuthbert Amphitheater (Life In Color)
10/10 – Milwaukee, WI – Eagles Ballroom
10/11 – Minneapolis, MN – Zombie Pub Crawl
10/24 – Las Vegas, NV – Hakkasan
10/29 – San Jose, CA – SAP Center
10/31 – Salt Lake City, UT – The Great Saltair (Get Freaky)
11/2 – Las Vegas, NV – Hakkasan
11/6 – Philadelphia, PA – Liacouras Center (Wired 96.5 Fest)
11/7 – Las Vegas, NV – Hakkasan